July 25, 2012

"On Location" Art Series Comes To Julius With TEAROOM

On Monday evening, I stopped by Julius, a gay bar in the west village, for an unusual art installation.  As part of On Location, a month-long site-specific visual arts event happening all over town, the film TEAROOM was being shown on a loop all night long.  TEAROOM was shot secretly behind one way-mirror in a public men's restroom in Mansfield, Ohio (pictured above) which was under investigation by police as a hotbed of sexual activity in July and August of 1962.

The film, which is about an hour long, came from the footage of a 3-week police sting that summer. Shot exactly 50 years ago, it is a striking vision of the past that's both disturbing and fascinating as the men's brazen sexual activities are seen by the shaky camera hidden in a broom closet. What I found most surprising were all the interracial hookups happening.  In this literally underground washroom, it seems that all of the usual social, economic, racial, and age barriers of that time were wiped away as all sorts of men meet to have sex in their secret bunker. The film is somewhat haunting as well since roughly half of the 70 men appearing in the film were convicted of sexual indecency and served up to a year in prison.  Some were likely institutionalized as well since, at that time "homosexuality" was considered a mental disorder.

In a great online interview, filmmaker William E. Jones talks about how he found this footage when doing research on the summer of '62 sting. The original film was in the garage of the town's former police chief. Jones grew up in Ohio, not too far from Mansfield, and for him the film has a strong personal resonance.Though the film has caused some controversy when screened, it is an essential piece of history which reminds us of the intense persecution of "homosexuality" that was endemic in mid-century America.

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